Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
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  • Climate activism overshadows Shakespeare at English professor conference

    Posted By on January 12, 2017

    Literature took a clear back seat to ideological activism at the 2017 Modern Language Association Convention, held last weekend in Philadelphia. The annual conference is academia’s largest gathering for professors of English and foreign languages.

    Academic conferences of this type are usually a venue for faculty to present papers showcasing the latest research in their fields. Judging by the MLA program though, English and foreign language literature professors are far more interested in “researching” pet political causes like climate change, globalization, and economic inequality than the study of literature.

    A few examples are illustrative of the content of these panels. One entire panel explored strategies for using Composition 101 – usually a mandatory skills course that all freshmen must take – to promote environmentalist political activism. Another session with practically no discernible connection to English or literature purports to “examine the aesthetic mediations and political challenges of production chains and commodity flows and of mobility and work” using Marxian analysis. A third, featuring four English professors, purports to offer commentary on multiple environmental science topics ranging from climate change to oil spill cleanups to pollination studies. There are also panels touting Naomi Klein’s political tracts on inequality, panels on the connection between internet surveillance and globalization, panels purporting to investigate the history of slavery and capitalism, panels on confronting animal extinction, and even a panel on something called “New New Materialisms” with paper topics that shed no more light on their obscurantist content than the session title.

    It’s possible that some of these presentations have scholarly relevance, though their stated topics appear to veer far outside of the professional competencies of a holder of a PhD in English or another MLA discipline. Some are overtly political, and most of these examples venture deep into issues that are traditionally the domain of political scientists, economists, sociologists, and even professionals in the hard sciences. Others – such as the aforementioned panel on infusing environmentalism into Composition 101 classes – focus upon using writing instruction to advance blatantly ideological causes to a point that approaches classroom indoctrination. We may nonetheless fairly ask how representative these types of topics are for the MLA program at large, which featured some 800 different sessions.

    So…I decided to take a look. The following rough tallies show the number of MLA 2017 sessions that included at least one paper or presentation on an overtly political topic.

    • 22 sessions featured one or more presentations on environmental justice themes (e.g. climate change, ecology, animal rights/extinction, and resource extraction)
    • 15 sessions featured one or more presentations on “globalization”
    • 39 sessions featured one or more presentations on “postcolonialism”
    • 8 sessions featured one or more presentations on adjunct activism or “contingent” academic labor
    • 10 sessions featured one or more presentations invoking “neoliberalism”
    • 3 sessions featured one or more presentations on the politics of boycotting (usually tied to the Israel-Palestine conflict)

    Some of this is standard fare, especially in Critical Theory-infected disciplines. But I was also curious how it stacked up against what most people think of as the scholarly domain of English professors, which is to say the standards of the literary canon. For comparison, here are the number of sessions that include at least one paper on a prominent literary figure’s work:

    • 13 sessions mentioning William Shakespeare
    • 5 sessions mentioning Charles Dickens
    • 1 session mentioning Mark Twain
    • 2 sessions mentioning William Faulkner
    • 2 sessions mentioning Ernest Hemingway
    • 3 sessions mentioning Jane Austen
    • 4 sessions mentioning Samuel Beckett
    • 4 sessions mentioning James Joyce
    • 4 sessions mentioning Virginia Woolf
    • 1 sessions mentioning Leo Tolstoy
    • 1 session mentioning Toni Morrison
    • 3 sessions mentioning Edgar Allen Poe
    • 3 sessions mentioning Langston Hughes
    • 2 sessions mentioning Emily Dickinson
    • 1 session mentioning Ralph Ellison
    • 1 session mentioning Walt Whitman
    • 2 sessions mentioning George Eliot
    • 2 sessions mentioning one of the Bronte sisters
    • 0 sessions mentioning George Orwell

    Though far from exhaustive, this list is meant to show an array of prominent literary figures and the comparative inattention they received. At 13 sessions, Shakespeare is the only literary figure that even comes close to the aforementioned political activist topics (and two entire Shakespeare sessions were specifically about finding environmentalist political themes in the bard’s works). Even prominent figures of late 20th century literary acclaim are neglected by comparison to ideologically themed presentations, including those from the far fringes of the political spectrum.  Toni Morrison was the subject of a single paper on one panel, which actually means her work had less of a presence on the MLA program than Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou.

    Though informal, these findings are likely indicative of a deeper problem within English and the other MLA disciplines. Many academics in these fields appear to be producing highly ideological research that (a) is often far afield of their scholarly competencies and (b) sometimes ventures into outright pseudoscholarly territory. Areas of traditional expertise in literature, whether the “classics” or even a more diverse array of modern writers, are instead given second billing to environmentalist activism and Critical Theory-infused tracts on a litany of nakedly political causes.

    Rehabilitating King Cotton

    Posted By on December 25, 2016

    Earlier this month the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a feature about an ongoing debate between economists and historians over the relationship between slavery and capitalism. While some of the divergences between the two fields are methodological, they center upon the interpretation of evidence. The historians involved are all primary players in what has been called the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) movement – a still vaguely defined post-“Great Recession” surge of scholarly interest in topics of economic history, and particularly slavery. A string of books in the early 2010s by Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, Walter Johnson and others have advanced what they purport to be a “new” argument about the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism. These authors all advance sweeping theories of “capitalism” that situate slavery and slave-derived products such as cotton at the center of the global political economy between the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Britain and the end of the American Civil War. In doing so, they all claim to break with an older branch of economic history that viewed slavery as antithetical to free-market capitalism on account of a number of efficiency arguments for free labor.

     

    Much of the NHC literature is explicitly pejorative in its treatment of capitalism, thus the drive to link it to slavery and its many illiberal progeny in the century and a half since its abolition. Beckert specifically contends that slavery demonstrates “capitalism’s illiberal origins,” and portrays its history as one of expropriation and exploitation rather than growth and abundance. Baptist makes similar arguments while also attaching a pronounced sense of novelty to his own interpretation – a story of the exploitation and torture of slaves for economic gain that’s “never been told,” as his book’s title proclaims.

     

    Given the intersection of my own research and the topic of slavery, I’m often asked what I think about the contributions of Beckert, Johnson, Baptist and other contributors to the NHC genre. The answer: not much.

     

    I could echo what others have said about the NHC literature’s historical shortcomings, such as this piece by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, or its misuse of basic economic concepts, as Bradley Hansen has shown in a widely cited blog post. Both are damning in their own right. I continue to be struck though by another feature of the main NHC works on capitalism and slavery, which returns me to the point about their exaggerated claims of originality. Consider the following passage, which (save for a few dated idiosyncrasies of language) could double as a brief summary of where Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson situate slavery in relation to global capitalism:”

     

    “Slavery is not an isolated system, but is so mingled with the business of the world, that it derives facilities from the most innocent transactions. Capital and labor, in Europe and America, are largely employed in the manufacture of cotton. These goods, to a great extent, may be seen freighting every vessel, from Christian nations, that traverses the seas of the globe; and filling the warehouses and shelves of the merchants over two-thirds of the world. By the industry, skill, and enterprise employed in the manufacture of cotton, mankind are better clothed; their comfort better promoted; general industry more highly stimulated; commerce more widely extended; and civilization more rapidly advanced than in any preceding age.”

     

    That passage was written in 1856. It comes from a widely circulated late antebellum tract by David Christy, a Cincinnati-based journalist and political economist who took up the task of “proving” that “King Cotton” was the engine of the world’s economy. This argument held that the integral position of cotton on a global stage made it indispensable to the financial and commercial wealth of the United States for the then-foreseeable future. The slave system, it followed, economically benefited even those persons in the north and in Europe who pushed the doctrines of emancipation and abolition from afar.

     

    kingcotton

     

    If this is starting to sound familiar, it is likely because the “King Cotton” thesis gained a champion from the radical pro-slavery politicians of the late antebellum United States – first as an argument against antislavery agitation, and then as a basis for the Confederacy’s blunderous foreign policy of attempting to draw the European powers – and particularly Britain – to their side in the Civil War with the lure of cotton. In the end the southerners miscalculated. They believed their own rhetoric about cotton’s claimed preeminence in the global economy and believed that both the carrot of its product and the stick of restricting supply would gain them diplomatic recognition and military aid from abroad. Instead, Britain simply turned elsewhere for the crop and resisted southern overtures to enter the war, particularly after the Lincoln administration took an increasingly bolder stance against slavery.

     

    The failure of King Cotton to stave off abolitionist agitation and, later, secure the Confederacy’s place diplomatically is its own evidence that the underlying thesis severely exaggerated its own importance to the global economy – even at the high water mark of the American plantation system on the eve of the Civil War. This chain of events raises an interesting historiographical twist for Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson though. Far from the novel and necessary course correction to economic history that its contributors claim to be offering, the burgeoning NHC literature on “slavery and capitalism” has almost unwittingly stumbled into a project of rehabilitating the antebellum King Cotton arguments of David Christy, Louis Wigfall, and James Henry Hammond.

    An Election Day Anecdote

    Posted By on November 8, 2016

    Let me tell you a story about a major party’s nominee for President of the United States. It involves a candidate who had a storied political career, dating back almost three decades. This candidate held every conceivable position of importance. In addition to enjoying access to multiple presidents, our candidate was a recognized leader of a political party,  former U.S. Senator, and, most recently, the Secretary of State in the outgoing administration.

    The candidate in this story was also notoriously corrupt. Some of those corruption charges went back many years. The most famous one involved a crooked real estate deal in Arkansas that personally enriched the candidate through fraudulent bank dealings and government access. The evidence of this corruption was strong, although previous investigations had never quite produced a criminal charge. Still, it was strong enough to make the candidate a divisive figure – so divisive, in fact, that a part of the candidate’s party refused to support a ballot with this individual’s name. Rumors of corruption cost the candidate the nomination 8 years earlier in a contest with a lesser known upstart from the Midwest who ran on reforming the government after a period of extended scandal. But the candidate lingered around and again sought public office.

    Our candidate remained popular and exercised immense influence on policy during the next two presidential terms. Owing to continued displays of political clout and an intensely loyal following within the party, the candidate was eventually offered the Secretary of State as a consolation. Throughout this period, the country anxiously waited for the candidate’s next steps. Many anticipated another presidential run when our candidate published a widely circulated memoir about a lifetime in “public service.” When the opportunity presented itself 8 years later, the individual in question once again sought the White House.

    This time our candidate secured the nomination. It was a controversial nomination that revived decades of scandal and public corruption. To temper the controversy and reunite the electorate, the party selected a little-known and uncontroversial senator from a swing state as its Vice Presidential nominee.

    The divisions were deep though. After a brutal campaign and nominating convention, a portion of the candidate’s own party even resolved to oppose their nominee and jumped ship to other candidates. Then the scandal hit. The candidate had spent many years attempting to suppress evidence of the corrupt business and government arrangements. Rumors swirled of backroom deals and efforts to silence witnesses to the sordid affair. Then somebody obtained copies of letters written by the candidate, revealing decades of corruption, and leaked them to the press.

    The candidate adamantly denied that the letters showed any evidence of criminality. The party spin apparatus kicked into gear and suggested they were simply a dirty trick from the opposing party. Some claimed the letters were forged. Others hinted that they came from foreign interests from across the Atlantic, charged trying to sway the outcome of the election. A partisan media repeated these defenses with little scrutiny, though the documents’ authenticity was overwhelming. Congress even held inquiries into the scandal. The opposing party alleged criminality and charged that our candidate had “prostituted…high office” for personal enrichment. The letters contained several particularly damning references, including instructions to destroy records of the scandal – to burn the evidence. No charges were ever filed though.

    Our candidate remained in the race through election day. It turned out to be one of the most heated elections in history, with the outcome decided in a few key swing states.

    Meet James G. Blaine, Republican nominee for president in 1884.

    blaine-logan

     

    On Madjunct Activists and Article Paywalls

    Posted By on September 21, 2016

    Jason Brennan and I recently published an article investigating the common claim that adjuncts are “exploited.” We use a combination of empirical evidence and ethical investigation into the use of this term, and conclude that the claim does not withstand scrutiny. The article was published in the Journal of Business Ethics and is now available on their website. Like many academic articles, it is also behind the publisher’s a paywall on their public site. This practice usually isn’t an obstacle to anyone with access to a college library, as most have subscriptions and many of them even allow remote login through their websites.

    Rather than engaging with our article and the criticisms it raises about their arguments, a number of madjuncts – that small subset of “career adjunct” activists – have taken to attacking the paywall at the journal’s website. One of them even accused me of  trying to swindle her our of $40 to “enrich” myself, even though I do not make any money if the article is purchased. I have extended an offer to share a copy of the article with anyone who requests it by email, though very few of the madjuncts have taken me up on it despite their persistent complaints about the paywall. The offer still stands, but I’ll also ask the madjunct crowd to consider the following three observations about their paywall grievance:

    1. Our article is in a leading subfield journal. Almost every college library in America has a subscription to that journal. So do many public libraries. If you cannot get it at yours, the chances are high that you are simply too incompetent to even use a library and therefore probably shouldn’t be employed in a teaching capacity at the college level.

    2. If you claim you can’t get the article because you lack access to a college library, then you’ve pretty much admitted to me you don’t actually teach at a college. So please quit lying to me by claiming you are an exploited adjunct.

    3. Since most of you are Marxists, you should in fact pay the $40 fee, but in a check directly to Jason or myself, so as to ensure that we are justly compensated for the fruits of our labor. Your demands about the paywall indicate that you desire to steal our work from us and alienate us from the value we created by writing the piece.

    In fact, one might easily extend your labor theory of value framework to your professed intentions about the paywall, and conclude – at least in Marxian terminology – that you are attempting to “exploit” us. Therefore you owe it to us to pay up =)

    corporations

    On New Dealer Climate Policy

    Posted By on September 12, 2016

    rextugwell

    Let’s consider a thought experiment.

    Suppose a second Great Depression happened, and the evidence of its harm was overwhelming. Unemployment shot up to 24% and GDP dropped by almost 30%. By every sense of the imagination, the economic collapse was catastrophic. Now suppose you are confronted with the following argument:

    “People are suffering, so we simply have to do something. Therefore we need to enact a second New Deal modeled directly after the first one. Time is of the essence so we must do it now. If you oppose it, you are simply engaging in obstruction and denying the economic reality of the disaster we face.”

    If you possess an even mild amount of skepticism for New Dealer macroeconomics and central planning, I suspect you would find this line of argument to be objectionable. For starters, it is a complete non-sequitur to assert that a specific policy necessarily follows from the reality of an economic collapse, or the existance of suffering. Strong evidence also suggests the proposed solution didn’t work the first time, and will actually make conditions worse by extending the misery of the initial catastrophe. But the person making this argument also insults your intelligence by suggesting that your reasonable and factually grounded skepticism to a suite of empirically disastrous policies is rooted in some form of dogmatic knuckle-dragging denialism. Or callous apathy toward suffering.

    Suppose then that your interlocutor realizes he’s not convincing you, so he adds a new line of argument:

    “I know a second New Deal is not perfect, but things are really bad and we still have to do something. The catastrophe we’re facing is undeniable. The solution I’m proposing is still a lot better than Marxism, so you should accept it as an improvement over the alternative in a non-ideal situation.”

    You might credit him for dropping the assumption of ill-will that characterized his first line of attack, but I suspect you would still find his argument lacking. He has added a false dilemma to the initial non-sequitur, which still erroneously assumes that the existence of the Depression is its own reason for doing something. And he still hasn’t answered your initial objection, which is that he’s pushing a deeply flawed and dangerous policy that carries a high likelihood of doing a great amount of harm.

    So tell me: why do some very sensible people who immediately see the obvious faults in the argument for a second New Deal accept and even deploy these exact same lines of reasoning when the ‘crisis’ is not a second Great Depression but rather climate change? Or when the ‘solution’ is a Pigouvian carbon tax?

    Are the humanities being squeezed out of academia? The evidence says otherwise

    Posted By on September 11, 2016

    One of the most common narratives of the higher education literature is the claimed decline of the humanities. We are constantly told that the humanities are “under assault” in an academy that increasingly values the STEM disciplines and professional degrees over a “well rounded education.” The humanities are often cast as the victims of an allegedly “corporatized” university system (itself a bizarre and empirically nonsensical charge that unintentionally veers into the territory of Tim Robbins’ speech from Team America). Fields like literature, history, philosophy and the sort are portrayed as “undervalued” on account of their declining numbers of majors, poor job markets, and a proclivity to produce research that isn’t economically or scientifically trendy.

    The narrative is so frequently repeated that most academics simply assume it is true without conducting any further investigation. Despite this widespread perception, it is also at odds with empirical reality. Earlier this summer the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released the latest statistics on the distribution of faculty across a range of academic fields. Their results show that humanities faculty numbers have consistently increased since the early 2000s. The following chart reflects the distribution of faculty at 4-year colleges and universities:

    humanities

    The humanities added almost 35,000 faculty to their ranks at 4-year colleges since 2002. They also outnumber almost every other field in the academy, with only two exceptions. The first is health sciences, which is something of an outlier due to numbers that are inflated by professional degree programs in nursing and medical care. The second is the natural sciences, which slightly outnumber humanities faculty at the present although they have shown almost no growth in the past 15 years.

    Similar patterns may be seen at two year colleges, where humanities faculty added almost 60,000 members to their ranks. At both types of institutions, the humanities retain a sizable and growing presence on campus despite a mistaken conventional wisdom that loudly proclaims otherwise.

    A closer examination of the humanities footprint reveals what is perhaps an even more surprising feature. Humanities faculty ranks are overwhelmingly dominated by the so-called MLA departments – English and foreign language literature. While the MLA fields are frequently portrayed as severely beleaguered, the numbers tell the opposite story. English alone employs almost twice as many faculty as the next closest humanities discipline (history), and the full MLA category makes up almost 50% of all humanities faculty.

    MLA departments do use adjunct faculty at higher rates than the other humanities as well as the rest of the university system. But this appears to be a byproduct of their already-outsized and growing presence on campus, not any actual decline. English and foreign language departments are adding adjunct-taught classes to supplement their already-vast course offerings, the most prominent of which is the ubiquitous Freshman Composition 101. Often a mandatory feature of the general education curriculum for undergraduates, Composition 101 is the single most frequently taken college class in America. No other course even comes close, whether it’s in the humanities or any other discipline. Comparable introductory or remedial math courses, for example, are taken at less than half the frequency as composition.

    So what explains the disparity between the rhetoric of the embattled humanities and an empirical reality that shows nothing of the sort? I suspect it traces back to the academic job market saturation in these fields. The humanities and the MLA disciplines in particular tend to produce new PhDs (and master’s degrees) at rates far in excess of the number of new job openings, and have done so for many decades. Even though the humanities are actually expanding at rates that equal or exceed almost every other field in the university system, they are still unable to supply enough faculty openings to meet the number of applicants who desire these same positions. This situation breeds the perception that the humanities are losing ground to other fields with healthier academic job markets, even though it is empirically false. Rather, their problem is a largely self-inflicted outcome of many decades of advanced degree overproduction that is strangely specific to a small number of heavily represented academic disciplines with a large and growing curricular presence on campus.

    Are the “inequality” charts simply tracking tax code changes?

    Posted By on September 7, 2016

    The main historical argument made by inequality scholars such as Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman asserts that the income and wealth distributions of the United States follow a U-shaped pattern across the past 100 years. According to this narrative, the century began at very high levels of inequality. Intervening events such as the adoption of the progressive income tax in 1913, as well as two world wars and the Great Depression, allegedly had an equalizing effect that reduced inequality to the trough of the U in the 1960s and 1970s. Piketty et al then claim that a series of tax cuts beginning under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s caused the U-shape to rebound, leading to rising inequality today.

    There are many problems with this narrative as a simple matter of economic history. The individual income tax has actually gotten more progressive since 1980, contrary to what Piketty et al claim. The original income tax in 1913 doesn’t match Piketty’s ideological depiction of it as a redistributive mechanism. The claimed “rebound” in inequality since 1980 also appears to be vastly overstated-to-non-existent, and more measured analysis has called this key claim of the Saez-Zucman study into question.

    Still, the U-shape remains a fixture of the inequality discussion including this visible example from the disputed findings of the Saez-Zucman study:

    saez-zucmanimage

    Saez and Zucman’s wealth inequality measure, as well as a similar income inequality estimate by Piketty and Saez, derive their source data from historical income tax returns provided by the IRS. In one sense, income tax returns are an important point of data for something that is notoriously difficult to measure: an accounting of individually held “wealth.” It comes with a substantial liability though. As Alan Reynolds has repeatedly pointed out, historical income tax data are highly responsive to changes in the federal tax code – as in the types of laws that Congress has passed every couple of years since the income tax was instituted in 1913. Using tax data from before and after a major tax code overhaul (such as the one that happened in 1986, to use a prominent example that likely distorts the post-1986 Saez-Zucman numbers) runs a high risk of creating an apples-to-oranges comparison. Changes to the tax code alter everything from the simple top marginal rate of taxation (which Piketty et al stress) to the types of income that are taxed, the number of exemptions and deductible items, the eligible tax base, and even how the income tax interacts with other closely related types of taxation.

    Despite this intuitively obvious problem, Piketty et al pay shockingly little attention to historical changes to the tax code in their analysis. In fact, Piketty regularly fumbles the basic legislative history of the income tax in the 20th century. Time and again, his writings indicate a complete inattentiveness to the changing structure of the income tax system except for the top marginal rates – and even then he frequently assigns those changes to the wrong years and wrong presidential administrations (he has called these errors “typos” in correspondence with myself and in his public statements, though he hasn’t ever bothered to correct them in his subsequent work).

    All of this brings me to an interesting pattern that I have been investigating in recent weeks. One way to measure the effects of changes to the tax code over time is to look at the simple distribution of the income tax burden from year to year. The CBO publishes these numbers periodically for the top shares of income tax payers – both by household and individual burden – going back to 1979. Their numbers show that the tax share paid by the highest quintile of filers has grown astronomically since the first date in this series, with the Top 1% of tax filers leading the way. Owing to differences in methodology and changes in the way that the IRS has reported data over the years, pre-1979 figures are harder to come by. A 2000 paper by Feenberg and Poterba provides one estimate of the tax share for the top 0.5% of household filers from 1962 until its time of publication. I have yet to find any source that systematically tracks these data prior to 1960 though – an issue that is also somewhat complicated by changes in the way the IRS reported its own data as well as gaps in certain years.

    Curious about this question, I started to investigate whether an older estimate of the tax share could be derived. It turns out that the IRS records actually tracked the annual distribution of individual tax filings with relative regularity from 1916 onward, making it possible to (1) rank order the total number of filings from the highest tax payer and (2) determine which tax class the cutoff for the top 1% of filers fell under in given years. This allows us to approximate the tax share paid by the top 1% of individual filers within a few fractions of a percentage point, using the corresponding revenue figures from each tax class. What follows is a rough estimate of the tax share paid by the top 1% of individual filers from 1916 to the early 1960s, when the IRS changed its reporting practices. I note with some caution that these are preliminary estimates that I hope may be further fine tuned. As a point of reference, they are overlaid with the Feenberg-Poterba household estimate for the top 0.5% in the mid 20th century and the CBO-derived figures for the top 1% of filers since 1979, using their estimates for individuals (again, I’ll stress that each uses a different way of estimation and different categories of filers so they are not directly comparable but they do show the larger patterns at play). Even with this very preliminary look though, it is readily apparent that the tax share paid by top income tax filers is highly responsive to the changes in tax code over the past century.

    historicaltaxsharesversion2

    Also note that a pronounced U-shaped pattern emerges, with an almost identical shape as the income tax-derived estimates that purport to measure various types of “inequality.” I’ll leave it to the reader to interpret what that might mean about those estimates.

    A Phony ‘Phocion’: Alexander Hamilton and the election of 1796

    Posted By on August 20, 2016

    William Loughton Smith

    On October 14, 1796 the Philadelphia-based Gazette of the United States newspaper ran the first of 25 “letters” that would forever change the nature of presidential campaigns. Bearing the pseudonym of the ancient Athenian orator ‘Phocion,’ the letters presented a systematic and, at times, bitterly personal argument against Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy for President of the United States. Over the next several weeks, the letters questioned Jefferson’s philosophical temperament for the office, charged him with harboring sympathies with the Jacobin revolutionaries in France, accused him of hypocrisy on slavery, and even hinted at his now-accepted relationship with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave in the Jefferson household. After their newspaper run, the essays were printed as a pamphlet and widely circulated on the campaign trails by supporters of Jefferson’s main election rival and the eventual winner, John Adams. In recent years, a number of scholars and popular writers have confidently asserted that ‘Phocion’ was in fact Jefferson’s longtime political rival Alexander Hamilton. The 18th century equivalent of an “attack ad” that Hamilton is presumed to have produced is now widely cited as an effective and even principled form of political campaigning.

    Phocion has an identity problem though, as his association with Hamilton is based on an inexplicably sloppy historical error.

    Almost all of these mistaken attributions actually derive from the same source: Ron Chernow’s highly acclaimed 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. In declaring Hamilton the author of the essays, Chernow notes that “these essays have inexplicably been omitted from Hamilton’s collected papers and biographies.” Declaring them authentically and “unmistakably Hamiltonian in style,” he praises them as “mocking, brilliant, prolix, bombastic, sometimes hairsplitting – but also characteristic in their obsession with Jefferson and the sanguinary turmoil of the French Revolution.” As evidence of this identification, he declares that the essays simply sound like Hamilton. In one instance they replicated a metaphor from Hamilton’s known Catullus essay of September 29, 1792, leading Chernow to believe that he has simply recycled an older passage. Proceeding as if his case has been proven, Chernow asserts that Hamilton and Phocion are one in the same person. He then deploys this conclusion as his basis for analyzing the 1796 campaign. The essays, he concludes, “contain the most withering critique that Hamilton ever leveled at Jefferson as a slaveholder, and they hint heavily at knowledge of the Sally Hemings affair.”

    This assertion is historically crucial to another of Chernow’s more dubious and yet also repeated claims, namely that Hamilton was an abolitionist. As I demonstrated at this link, Hamilton’s anti-slavery reputation has been severely exaggerated by his biographers and Chernow is among the primary culprits. Though a moderate manumissionist, Hamilton actually took part in the buying and selling of household slaves on behalf of his in-laws from New York City’s aristocratic Schuyler family. He also wavered on the issue of slavery when it came before the Confederation Congress and left almost no written thoughts about the institution in his voluminous journalistic career other than a couple of vague references to the condition of slavery in the abstract.

    Phocion is different though as it tackles slavery directly. It blasts Jefferson’s philosophical nods to “emancipat[ing] the blacks to vindicate the liberty of the human race” without following through. Instead, “at another [moment] he discovers that the blacks are of a different race from the human race and, therefore, when emancipated they must be instantly removed beyond the reach of mixture lest he (or she) should stain the blood of his (or her) master, not recollecting what from his situation and other circumstances he ought to have recollected – that this mixture may take place while the negro remains in slavery.” Jefferson, the Phocion letter concludes, “must have seen all around him sufficient marks of this staining of blood to have been convinced that retaining them in slavery would not prevent it.” It then proceeds to work through a devastating dissection of a passage in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia where he attributes a number unfavorable characteristics to the inherited traits of black skin color. It similarly assails Jefferson’s proposed yet never acted-upon emancipationist plan for its attached scheme of colonizing former slaves abroad. Phocion thus potentially ranks among the earliest examples of the anti-colonization literature as it relates to American slavery.

    If Phocion’s letters were authentically Hamilton’s words as Chernow believes and as others have asserted on his authority, this passage would easily stand out as the boldest antislavery argument he ever put to paper.

    Unfortunately for Chernow’s case though, Alexander Hamilton was not the author of the Phocion letters.

    That distinction instead belongs to William Loughton Smith, an arch-Federalist congressman from South Carolina. It is easy to see where Chernow was led astray. On October 15, 1796 – the day after the first Phocion letter ran in the Gazette – Republican campaign operative John Beckley brought it to the attention of Jefferson’s chief political lieutenant James Madison, speculating that Hamilton had made “his first appearance under signature of Phocion.” Had Chernow bothered to read the accompanying footnote in Madison’s edited papers, he would have noticed that this identification was mistaken. As the 1790s political world quickly realized, the author was in fact Hamilton’s congressional ally Smith.

    Beckley’s mistake quickly revealed itself in the subsequent Phocion letters to the Gazette. Their author took to referring to Hamilton by name in the third person, as well as heaping on effusive praise of him. These blatant self-promoting practices are deeply uncharacteristic of any of Hamilton’s other known pseudonymous newspaper essays. Yet Phocion used the example of “the spirited and truly patriotic HAMILTON” as a point of contrast with Jefferson, arguing that the former had dutifully “retired” from public life whereas the Sage of Monticello sought only to extend his clinging to a political career with further offices.

    On November 10 the Charleston City Gazette reported that Phocion was a “member of Congress from South Carolina, who has on all occasions been lavish of his abuse of Mr. Jefferson.” The Philadelphia Aurora, a well known anti-Federalist organ, all but named Smith as Phocion, noting that “somebody talking of it said Mr. S—- borrowed the leading ideas from Gulliver’s address to the King of the Struldbruggs.” In a later issue, the City Gazette noticed the borrowed passages from Hamilton’s 1792 Catullus essay and alluded to another instance where Smith had similarly lifted lines from Hamilton out of the Federalist papers. Here the author quoted Catullus “without the usual inverted commas” to indicate its source. “Who does not know that the person that committed a similar plagiarism upon the Federalist in defending the treaty here in the summer of 1795?” Elsewhere, clues in the text revealed a familiarity with the workings of Congress despite the author’s initial denial of an affiliation with that body – a likely rhetorical tactic to obscure his immediate identity.

    With the conclusion of the series in November and its republication as an anonymous standalone pamphlet, all suspicions turned to Smith. John Adams revealed Phocion’s identity to his wife Abigail in a letter on December 7, 1796, noting “Cousin Smith is Said to have written Phocian and Murray the Pieces from Maryland.” By late December, Smith was referenced openly in the press as the credited author or culprit, usually depending on which political party the paper supported. The episode stuck to Smith’s name for the remainder of his political career. The Republicans quickly dubbed him “Phocion Smith,” recalling the episode again in 1799 when Adams nominated him for a diplomatic post in Portugal. Smith, for his part, embraced the name and, after leaving his diplomatic post in 1801, continued to publish a series of political essays under the name Phocion in the Charleston Courier. When these later Phocion essays were collected and published as a book in 1806, its publisher announced in the preface that Smith had “not affected to disavow or conceal his being the Author of these Papers” and credited him in full as their author. Historians accordingly accepted Smith as the author of the 1796 Phocion letters long ago, and the historical literature largely forgot about the early uncertainty of their authorship now that his identity was settled. This is the explanation for why they were “inexplicably omitted” for Hamilton’s collected writings, as Chernow wondered. They were not in fact the work of Hamilton’s pen.

    Incidentally, the Phocion pieces did originate from a source that was closely aligned with Hamilton’s emerging wing of the Federalist Party. From a perch on the Ways and Means Committee, William Loughton Smith had served as something of a personal henchman in the House for Hamilton’s legislative agenda from his days as Secretary of the Treasury. The two conferred regularly on Federalist political and electoral strategy, and Smith shared in Hamilton’s deep disdain for not only Jefferson but all things French. Though no letters survive between the two specifically mentioning the Phocion episode, it stands to reason from their ongoing political kinship that Hamilton approved of the positions that Smith staked out as well as his devastating attacks on Jefferson’s candidacy.

    The more significant rub of the matter comes from the slavery issue. A longstanding member of the Charleston political elite, Smith was no abolitionist. He is actually best remembered today for a vicious speech in the House of Representatives in 1790 where he attacked the mixing of the white and black races, denounced all claims that the federal government had any power to interfere with slavery, and urged Congress to ignore the emancipation petitions of Quaker abolitionists. As Smith declared, “In whatever light, therefore, the subject was viewed, the folly of emancipation was manifest.”

    Read in this light, Smith’s attack on Jefferson over slavery assumes an entirely different character. It is also one that Chernow is not entirely unaware of, even as he has mistaken the identity of the author. Smith, as Phocion, was not simply taking a principled stand against Jefferson’s hypocrisy when he displayed the Virginian’s divided thoughts and actions on the subject. Rather, he intended this message for specific political consumption in the slaveholding states of the lower south. By attacking Jefferson’s inconsistency on slavery, he sought to highlight that Jefferson had in fact made rhetorical gestures toward emancipation and, more specifically, colonization. These policies were anathema to the slaveholder class of South Carolina, where the Phocion pamphlet was reprinted and heavily circulated. By showing Jefferson as a wavering thinker where slavery was concerned, Smith therefore actually sought to drive a wedge between him and his southern constituency.

    Smith’s strategy as Phocion had a specific electoral purpose, and with it Hamilton likely intended for the same outcome at the 1796 ballot box. By showing that Jefferson was inconsistent on slavery, the two Federalists were not trying to undermine his emancipationist reputation so much as they were seeking to establish it on firmer grounds to display before the lower south. In the era before the 12th amendment, members of the electoral college each had two simultaneous votes to cast. The winner was made president, and the vice presidency went to the runner up. Assuming Adams won the presidency as the Federalist candidate, Jefferson would almost certainly emerge in second place on the tide of the Republican electors alone. Seeking to prevent this outcome, Smith actually hoped to use emancipation to peel the electoral college votes of the slaveocracy away from Jefferson, their presumed favorite. If enough electors broke ranks over slavery, they would likely shift next to South Carolina’s Thomas Pinckney – a former governor of the state from one of its leading political families and one of the most prominent southern Federalists. Adams would therefore win the presidency followed by Pinckney as vice president, squeezing Jefferson out of office entirely with a third place finish.

    The execution of Smith’s strategy is hardly a divination from its text. He brought slavery more clearly into the picture, but Hamilton spelled out the same electoral math in a memorandum on the eve of the voting. “Pinckney,” he explained, “has the chance of some votes southward and westward, which Adams has not.”

    Like Smith, Thomas Pinckney was a loyal Hamiltonian Federalist in his politics. Pinckney was also the heir to a large plantation fortune, and a hardline slaveocrat. Other than his own term in politics, he is remembered today as the architect of an aggressive and vicious suppression of Charleston’s free black community following Denmark Vesey’s alleged slave revolt plot in 1822. In 1796 though, he was Smith and Hamilton’s favored candidate to box Jefferson out of the government (and, possibly, even demote Adams to second if Hamilton got his way owing to their rivalry for control of the Federalist Party)

    Phocion’s attacks on Jefferson ultimately helped to propel Adams to victory by 3 electoral votes. Jefferson finished a close second. Internal splits in the ranks of the Federalist electors denied Pinckney the votes to overtake Jefferson, although a handful of South Carolina’s pledged Jefferson electors actually broke ranks from the national Republican ticket and cast their second votes after Jefferson for Pinckney. The first major attack campaign in American history did not fully execute on its intended strategy, but it did tilt the outcome in the Federalists’ favor. Hamilton, for his own stake in the game, ended up yet again subordinating his modest anti-slavery leanings to a political alliance with two avowedly pro-slavery southern Federalists. One of them was the actual Phocion, and the second was the candidate that Phocion and Hamilton alike hoped but failed to propel into national office.

    Commie Chic & Quantifying Marx on the Syllabus

    Posted By on August 15, 2016

    scumbagkarl

    A recent story about the prominence of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto on U.S. college syllabi has sparked a number of lively debates and discussions about the proper role of such an economically discredited yet philosophically prominent thinker in the classroom curriculum. I’m personally of the view that Marx’s intellectual contributions are severely overrated and I consider his philosophy to be intellectually incoherent. Still, a need exists for non-marxists to grapple with the pervasiveness of his arguments on a number of fronts. I have no particular desire to expunge him from college curricula, and – on the contrary – encourage anyone who wants to tackle the old Marxist question to familiarize him or herself with his work. Marx should be read and dissected to the extent necessary to dispense with his arguments.

    The latest debate is interesting as it takes on an additional empirical character through a fancy new tool, the Open Syllabus Project. This search engine/network mapping hybrid crawls the internet for publicly posted college syllabi and aggregates statistics about the frequency that certain texts are assigned in college classrooms. And without too much surprise given academia’s general leftward tilt, Karl Marx showed up on top of the list.

    I’m an empiricist at heart, so I decided to take a closer look at some numbers on the whole Marx/syllabus presence question and in particular the ranking of his most frequently assigned book, the Communist Manifesto. My findings and a few observations proceed in the following steps:

    1. Accounting for different versions of its title, Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on a total of 3856 syllabi in the Open Syllabus Project database. That makes it the second most used text in academia after the popular writing style manual by Strunk and White (3934 syllabi) – a book that’s usually assigned to help college students with their composition habits for writing term papers.

    2. Of those 3856 Communist Manifesto hits, only 103 – or 2.67% – are on syllabi in Marx’s own primary academic discipline, economics. The rest are in fields that venture far astray from economics, with the highest concentrations coming from the humanities.

    3. Marx’s Communist Manifesto far exceeds the syllabus frequency of virtually *any* other author or work in all of human history with the possible exception of Plato. Here are the rankings for Marx and the most cited work of several major philosophical figures on the list (note: I intentionally excluded works that are textbooks or primarily literary and paired down the tail end of the list to give a rough sample):

    Marx (Communist Manifesto) – 3856
    Plato (Republic) – 3573
    Aristotle (Ethics) – 2709
    Hobbes (Leviathan) – 2671
    Machiavelli (The Prince) – 2652
    King (Letter from the Birmingham Jail) – 1985
    Mill (On Liberty) – 1969
    Foucault (Power) – 1774
    Darwin (Origin of Species) – 1701
    Augustine (Confessions) – 1694
    Tocqueville (Democracy in America) – 1650
    Smith (Wealth of Nations) – 1587
    Rousseau (Social Contract) – 1427
    Rawls (Theory of Justice) – 1248
    Sartre (Existentialism) – 1224
    Paine (Common Sense) – 1128
    Locke (Second Treatise) – 1045

    It continues downward from there into increasing obscurity.

    4. From these stats, it may be easily observed that Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on syllabi at a frequency that is often 2, 3, or 4X that of other thinkers of comparable prominence. Again, Plato is the only one who even comes close.

    Taken in cumulative, these data suggest two unusual possibilities:

    A. Karl Marx is the single most important, influential, and far-reaching thinker who ever lived, and his empirically attested syllabus presence accurately reflects this extreme degree of influence that he has over virtually all aspects of human knowledge.

    -or-

    B. Karl Marx enjoys a grossly outsized presence on college syllabi relative to his importance as a thinker, owing to a similarly disproportionate affinity for his thought among university faculty and particularly those faculty outside of the economics profession.

    Explanation B strikes me as far more plausible than explanation A.

    In considering the implications of this finding, it is worth acknowledging that Marx remains a prominent figure in several fields outside of economics: some corners of philosophy and political theory, certain schools of historical thought, a heavy presence in English/literature, and around the periphery of sociological circles, among many other locations. For better or for worse (and mostly worse, given the interminable jargon, conspiratorial disposition, and cluttered writing that Marxism tends to breed) students who pursue degrees in these fields are likely to encounter Marx at some point in their education. It might therefore be tempting to attribute Marx’s high syllabus ranking to his lingering trendiness in a number of academic fields. Let’s call it commie chic for fun.

    But wait for a moment before we leap from the existence of commie chic to our syllabus-derived empirics. The typical academic Marxist lesson in literary criticism, conflict analysis, race/class/gender analysis and the rest enjoys a well-deserved reputation for taking textual obscurantism to near-comical extremes. If you’re studying Marxist historical materialism at anything more than a superficial level, you can expect your reading assignments to derive from Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, an acroamatically decoded passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and probably some unduly celebrated clump of palavered word-lint from the Grundrisse. As a Marxist philosopher or lit critic-in-training, you should be at minimum touring the vocabulary swamp from one of the later chapters of Capital. 

    The one thing a student of “Advanced Marxian Dialectics 501” would not expect to encounter on a syllabus is a frolic through the common trite platitudes of Marx’s most famous foray into political leafleteering, the Communist Manifesto. In the academic world of commie chic, that’s the kindergarten lesson.

    Returning to the syllabus project’s database, we quickly find that classroom Marx lessons trail off after the Communist Manifesto. The second place Marx-text is Capital at 1447 hits, placing it right in the neighborhood of Rousseau’s Social Contract. The descent from there is rapid, such that they attract a couple hundred appearances a piece. The Civil War in France comes in at 133 for example. Between its various titles, his Theories of Surplus Value numbers about 200. Grundrisse is at 196, and his essay On Religion pops up at 115 hits.

    The observed syllabus chart-topping popularity is no general feature of Marx himself, but specific to Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The acknowledged academic proliferation of commie chic is therefore insufficient to explain Marx’s overall dominance of the rankings.

    This secondary finding would appear to further dampen the prospects of Explanation A above, namely that Marx somehow landed himself on the very top of the list of the most important, influential, far-reaching, and consequential figures of all time. Rather, university faculty simply have an abnormally pronounced affinity for assigning his bombastic little propaganda pamphlet at rates that far exceed every single other writer in human history, ever. I’ll leave it to my readers to draw their own inferences as to the intellectual merits of that little exercise.

    Alexander Hamilton’s Xenophobia

    Posted By on August 2, 2016

    hamiltrump

    We are presently in the midst of a Hamiltonian revival. After sitting dormant for much of the 20th century, the first Secretary of the Treasury’s political program recently sprang to life in a vulgarized form through the Donald Trump campaign. While the Trump association has yet to taint Alexander Hamilton’s reputation despite their nearly identical economic viewpoints, his popular image has benefited immensely from a hagiographic broadway show.

    One prominent theme of the latter medium is its glorification of Hamilton’s immigrant story. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton migrated to the North American colonies as a teenager in 1773 (yes, this was technically an immigration within the British empire, but nonetheless his “foreign” birth continues to weigh heavily upon how he is perceived). Hamilton’s immigrant status is not merely a celebrated feature of his popular image – it is perhaps the central message of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award winning musical, not to mention one that Miranda has exploited for its modern day political resonance.

    Unfortunately, the Hamilton of legend is grossly mismatched with the Hamilton of history where immigration is concerned. Though he is celebrated as an immigrant success story in his own right, the historical Alexander Hamilton actually became an aggressive and sometimes vicious xenophobe by the end of his life.

    Hamilton’s anti-immigrant shift came about almost entirely as a product of his efforts to consolidate political and military power during the Federalist presidency of John Adams. As friendly Hamilton biographers like Ron Chernow stress at length, he previously held relatively liberal views on immigration as expressed in his 1791 Report on Manufactures. Only 7 years later though, Hamilton had become a behind-the-scenes architect of the Alien & Sedition Acts. His ostensible reasoning was a reaction to the terrors of the French Revolution, and an almost paranoid belief that French supporters of his Jeffersonian adversaries were plotting to import Jacobinism into the United States. His anti-French sentiments rapidly expanded to include a fear of similarly imagined “subversive” activities by Irish Fenians, German radicals, and other immigrant groups at large.

    As I noted in my last post, the “Alien” portion of the Alien and Sedition Acts referred to three laws that were designed to severely curtail foreign immigration into the United States. Two of the measures gave the president sweeping peace and wartime powers to detain and deport foreign nationals who allegedly posed a “danger” to domestic security. The third entailed a naturalization law that more than doubled the time required for a foreign born person to obtain United States citizenship and, with it, vote.

    Chernow in particular portrays Hamilton as a somewhat reluctant latecomer to the Alien & Sedition Acts who only supported them after his party drove the measures through Congress. In reality, Hamilton was involved in their creation. On March 25, 1798 Speaker of the House Jonathan Dayton sent Hamilton a now-lost letter that apparently solicited his input on a list of legislative matters. Hamilton’s reply survives and indicates his support for the Alien and Naturalization bills:

    “I agree that the President ought to have power to send out of the country suspected foreigners saving merchants who have six months by Treaty, which stipulation contemplating war must operate in the event contemplated. And let us perservere and set good examples.

    The suspension of the naturalization act will also be prudent but I always wished that our naturalization acts had distinguished between the right to hold property & political privileges.”

    Two months later, as the bills were being prepared and debated in Congress, he reaffirmed this position to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. According to Hamilton, “the mass ought to be obliged to leave the Country” save for exceptions carved out for merchants.

    Hamilton’s xenophobia intensified as the measures became law later that year. President Adams utilized his discretion to severely limit deportations under the Alien Friends Act, despite Pickering’s sometimes intense lobbying to deploy its powers. Hamilton likely wished for the same end as Pickering, or at least his surviving letters indicate as much.

    Writing again to Dayton in late 1799, Hamilton railed against two “foreign” newspaper editors, the Irish-born John D. Burk and the Scottish-born James T. Callender. Hamilton’s fury derived from his frustration that they were not being deported or prosecuted for the anti-Federalist contents of their papers:

    “Renegade Aliens conduct more than one of the most incendiary presses in the UStates—and yet in open contempt and defiance of the laws they are permitted to continue their destructive labours. Why are they not sent away? Are laws of this kind passed merely to excite odium and remain a dead letter?”

    When the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions condemning these measures as a violation of the constitutional protection for free speech, Hamilton called upon Congress to issue a “report exhibiting with great luminousness and particularity the reasons which support the constitutionality and expediency of those laws.” The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, he responded, were a “regular conspiracy to overturn the government,” their intention being “to encourage a hostile foreign power to decline accommodation and proceed in hostility.”

    Hamilton reserved a particularly aggressive form of antipathy for one of his successors at the Treasury Department, the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin. His dislike for Gallatin dated to at least the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793, and devolved into outright foreigner-bashing by the end of the decade. In an 1802 political editorial, Hamilton took to raving in conspiratorial fashion about Gallatin’s influence on Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet:

    “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country? And who stimulates persecution on the heads of its citizens, for daring to maintan an opinion, and for exercising the rights of suffrage? A foreigner!”

    The same article decried Jefferson’s efforts to repeal the Naturalization Act on the grounds that doing so would flood the country with “foreigners.” Hamilton blasted the extension of citizenship rights to immigrants because he believed that doing so would allow them to “get too early footing in a country.” Jefferson, he strongly insinuated, even owed his election in 1800 to too many “foreigners” being granted easy access to the ballot box.

    A severe case of cognitive dissonance accompanied these and other anti-immigrant pronouncements by Hamilton, particularly given his own background. While Gallatin’s Swiss birth was a frequent obsession, he similarly railed against immigrants who came from within the British empire much like himself. The Irish-born anti-federalist congressman William Findley was another of his favorite targets for foreigner-bashing – even though Findley immigrated to the United States in 1762, a decade before Hamilton himself.

    Others pointed out Hamilton’s hypocrisy in his own time, yet strangely his historical interpreters mostly give him a pass where immigration is concerned. Hamilton’s turn to xenophobia is as much a part of him as his protectionism, his debt consolidation program, his coauthorship of the Federalist Papers, and his role in drafting the Constitution itself. Obscuring this unpleasant fact, or dressing it up – literally – in song and dance routines that project the appearance of an enlightened pro-immigration immigrant, subjects his biography to an unsupported and fundamentally untruthful claim. In the meantime, it remains difficult to reconcile the “immigrant legend” of Hamilton’s popular reputation and acclaim with the reality of his deep personal hostility toward foreigners at the maturity of his political life.